By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
JOHNSTOWN, Pa., Nov. 21-- At Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 155 -- the one with "VFW" spelled four feet high outside in red, white and blue neon -- Dick Cobaugh turned away from the Steelers game to explain why withdrawing troops from Iraq was both right and completely wrong.
First, he said he agrees with his hometown congressman, John P. Murtha (D), that the Iraq conflict has become an unwinnable quagmire. "You don't know who the enemy is," Cobaugh said, recalling Vietnam, where both he and Murtha served.
But, Cobaugh said, if troops do leave Iraq, "the message is, we're weak."
Which led him, in the space of just a few football plays over the weekend, suddenly to sound more like President Bush: "I'm not saying we should stay there forever. But we should stay the course."
This is the conflicted state of things here in western Pennsylvania, where residents have watched Murtha -- Marine veteran, 31-year House member and this area's beloved economic savior -- become a lightning rod for the country's bitter debate on Iraq. Last week, Murtha stunned congressional colleagues and triggered an uproar from Republicans and the White House by calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
As Murtha has been attacked as a coward and an ultraliberal, residents in this old valley town have been moved to defend him, saying they were touched by the congressman's emotional plea to remove all troops within about six months.
But many Johnstowners, with sons, daughters and neighbors serving in the Middle East, said they still don't share Murtha's certainty that there is now an acceptable way out.
"I think it's too late to just get out of there in the middle of it," said Donna Ickes, 65, of Johnstown. "It would just make us look terrible in the other countries' eyes."
After spending the weekend defending himself on TV talk shows, Murtha, 73, spoke to reporters in Johnstown on Monday. The gruff-talking former Marine said he had one regret about his comments last week: that he blasted Vice President Cheney for attacking Democratic critics of the war when Cheney had obtained five deferments from military service as a young man.
But Murtha said he still believes he was voicing an opinion widely held both here and across the country. "The public turned against this war before I said it," he said, noting that he had received stacks of letters and e-mails of support. "If I believed the stuff they sent to me, I'd run for president."
Murtha received a standing ovation after addressing a meeting of local business leaders. The heavily decorated veteran is a local hero; he has helped to rebuild the town with federal money and contracts after catastrophic floods and the collapse of the local coal and steel industries. The airport and a raft of public buildings are named for him. Regardless of what others say about him in Washington, no one here believes Murtha should fear a political backlash in this socially conservative but heavily Democratic district.
"He built Johnstown," said Mike Matijevich, 53, a town resident and a food service employee in a nearby prison.
"There isn't somebody going to take him down over this," said Robert Gleason Jr., the Republican Party chairman in Cambria County, which includes Johnstown.
Instead, the response to Murtha's comments here has not been political so much as personal, with residents treating his outburst like that of an emotional relative -- including their surprise at suddenly finding their typically camera-shy congressman on national television challenging the Bush administration's war policy and describing meetings with grievously wounded Iraq war veterans and their families.
At the VFW hall, Al Just, 55, grabbed his own chest as he tried to describe what he saw.
"Mr. Murtha," he said. "His heart is starting to come out."
For a few, Murtha's startling pronouncement was enough to push them toward a new conclusion: that the administration lacks any kind of plan for ending the war and returning troops home.
"If he doesn't see it," said Jim White, director of economic development for the city of Johnstown, whose son served in Iraq, "I've got to believe what he said."
"Bring 'em the hell home," Deanne Poling, 39, said of the troops. "He's right, and he's brave enough to say it out loud," added Poling, who sells Steelers football handicraft.
But for many others here, it was one thing to defend Murtha from attacks on his character, and another to feel comfortable believing -- as he does -- that a pullout of troops will make Iraq safer.
"I don't think we can pull out and just leave them high and dry," said Sharyn Spinelli, who owns a cafe on the city's run-down Central Park square. "But I don't want to lose American lives over it."
On Sunday, Lei Hennessy-Owen, whose son is serving his second tour in Iraq as a Marine, ran after a reporter to explain her unhappiness with Murtha's position.
"What's that going to solve right now?" she asked of the pullout plan.